It’s been 21 years since John Slaney has celebrated a Newfoundland Christmas in St. John’s. But childhood holiday memories from his Merrymeeting Rd. neighborhood, where the family home was located adjacent to his father’s barbershop, stay with him to this day.
“I remember Newfoundland Christmas music. I remember losing power for days around Christmas time. I remember Mom used to give us biscuits and we’d have to drink tea in the morning to get our bodies warm enough to go play hockey,” Slaney recalls.
“Back then, you ate breakfast, then you went out and played hockey, or went sledding somewhere. You had to be outside.”
There have been a few occasions where family has visited him. His parents, Helen and Joe, joined him for the 1991 and 1992 holiday seasons when Slaney was part of Canada’s world junior squads, and other years when Slaney and his wife, Brenda, spent Christmas with her family in Albany, N.Y. or Sicklerville, N.J., which the Slaneys now call home.
“Thank God for Skype,” Slaney says of the online voice and video service that has helped make the world a smaller place.
“It’s great for us to be able to communicate with family and friends back home.”
It’s will be 20 years since Slaney scored the memorable goal in Saskatoon to give Canada the world junior gold medal in 1991. Since then, Slaney has enjoyed a career that has seen him hit the ice for nearly 20 pro clubs in North America and, for the past four seasons, in Europe. He has celebrated his share of Christmases on the road, and in adopted homes from Philadelphia to Frankfurt.
The holiday season that stands out as the strangest is the Christmas of 1997, when Slaney and wife-to-be Brenda were based in Phoenix, where he playing for the International Hockey League’s Roadrunners, then the farm team of the Los Angeles Kings.
“You wake up looking at a Christmas tree, and then put on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt to go outside. That’s pretty strange,” Slaney told the Telegram — over Skype.
This year, the family — which includes son Tyler, 9, and daughter Julia, 4 — will celebrate their first Christmas in the Czech Republic where Slaney signed on to play this year with brother-in-law, former NHLer Jaroslav Modry, on Martin Straka’s Plzen hockey club in the country’s top tier league.
“It’s so nice over here with their Christmas market. People sit around outside and sip on hot chocolate and coffee,” the 38-year-old Slaney says of the little wooden huts along cobblestone streets where they sell bratwurst, candy, and a wine and spice beverage.
“Basically, it’s warm wine, people really look forward to it.”
“It’s so cold over here you’ve gotta drink something warm, and they like their alcohol.”
And found in abundance throughout the market is fish. Lots of fish. Carp to be exact, and it forms the central ingredient in most families’ holiday feasts, which happen on Christmas Eve as opposed to the 25th.
“Think about being on George Street and all the hotdog vendors around. Here you see great buckets of fish out on the curbs. Jaro (Modry) says they’ll sell every last piece of it, too.
“I’ve told them, ‘I love being here and playing here, but I don’t think I can eat that fish.’ And I love seafood.”
Before long, Slaney hopes to bring his kids back to hometown and show them how Christmas is done, Newfoundland style.
“I’m starting to tell Tyler about the mummers back in the day. He still can’t figure that part out. He thinks it’s Halloween.”
Slaney isn’t the only Newfoundlander who’ll celebrate Christmas in the Czech Republic this year.
St. John’s native Doug O’Brien is in his second year in the Czech league, this year with Sparta Praha (Prague), one of two teams playing out of the national’s capital.
Unlike Slaney, with whom he spent American Thanksgiving this November, O’Brien hasn’t had to wait over 20 years for a Christmas at home. His last trip home for the holidays came eight years ago when he was putting the finishing touches on a Quebec Major Junior Hockey League career that got him picked by the Tampa Bay Lightning, 192nd overall, in the 2003 NHL Entry Draft.
Since then, he’s spent the holidays alone or with teammates.
“It kind of sucks being on your own,” explains O’Brien, who spent a Christmas in Finland while playing for Lukko Rauma of the Finnish Elite League in 2007-2008. “But after being away for so long, it’s sad to say, you get used to it.”
Outside of family and friends, the thing O’Brien misses most about Christmas in Newfoundland is the party atmosphere that comes with it.
“My dad is from the Southern Shore in Cape Broyle, and I’ve spent two Christmases at the cabin. I remember mummers coming around through the holidays.”
He had his first taste of Czech Christmas traditions last year when a teammate in Plzen, his former club, invited O’Brien to celebrate with his family in Prague. It was here on Dec. 6 he first observed the feast day of St. Nicholas, or Svaty Mikalas in Czech.
On that day, it’s commonplace for children to be visited at their home by an angel and a devil who take a list of all the good and bad things a child has done throughout the year. The children then leave their shoes by the door and if they’ve been good, they are filled with candy, fruit and small toys, much like stockings in North American culture.
If they’ve been bad, the devil is said to leave potatoes, rocks or lumps of coal.
“Last year, a knock came at the door and here was a devil and angel,” said O’Brien. “I had no idea what was going on.
“We had a home game on Dec. 6, too, and you could see people dressed as Devils and Angels in the stands.”
O’Brien will spend this Christmas Eve with the same family, but come Christmas Day, he and the rest of the Sparta will make the trip to Davos, Switzerland to take part in the Spengler Cup.
“We won’t get to play against Canada unless it’s in the crossovers or the medal round, which is kind of disappointing. But I’m looking forward to seeing Davos. I’ve only heard good things about it.”
Just a few days into 2011, O’Brien will have Newfoundland Christmas cheer delivered to his doorstep when his girlfriend, Erin Hopkins, comes to visit.
“I’m sure she’ll have a few surprises for me from my parents.”